What Is a Fresh Expression?

What are Fresh Expressions? By simply hearing the name “Fresh Expressions,” some might think it is a laundry detergent and still others a breath freshener. Some who hear about Fresh Expressions as a movement might interpret it as a last-ditch effort to “save the institutional church.” But Fresh Expressions isn’t another new program but rather a movement of the Holy Spirit.

One of us (Audrey) served in a community that included a large number of immigrant families. Each day many of these men would gather at a central location with the hope of being employed for the day. Many were new to the United States, and most were living day to day. The church began a ministry called Cafe en La Calle. These Monday morning gatherings became as consistent as the Sunday morning services that had happened twenty-four hours earlier. Members of the church, along with the pastor, would prepare coffee and food to share as these men gathered. Individuals could write down prayer requests and put them in a prominently displayed box. At times, there were deep conversations about family and faith. Cafe en La Calle became a way of sharing the faith in new ways and in a new place among new people.

A Movement Begins

“Do not try to call them back to where they were, and do not try to call them to where you are, as beautiful as that place might seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a place that neither you nor they have ever been before.” –Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (Ossining, NY: Orbis Books, 2003)

We write with a great love for the church but with a sober awareness that the church in the United States is in a fragile place. As leaders within a particular expression of this church (United Methodist), we have experienced the full range of emotions related to this reality: lament, cynicism, denial, critique, and despair. Yet we move forward with the conviction that God is with us.

After two years of strategy, prayer, correspondence, and time set aside in “vision days,” we journeyed with friends to England. We went there as students seeking to learn about a movement that God is using to renew the church. This particular movement, Fresh Expressions, has been putting down roots for more than a decade in the United Kingdom and beyond.

The Fresh Expressions movement began in England in 2004 through a report of the Church of England about the state of the church in that nation and the need for a new direction. The report was entitled “Mission Shaped Church.” Those who helped to draft the report note that the original title was “Dying to Live,” but the early title seemed too dire and inflammatory.

The report coincided with the beginning of the ministry of new Archbishop Rowan Williams. In a conversation with Archbishop Rowan, Bishop Graham Cray quickly learned that Williams not only supported Fresh Expressions, but he had also anticipated many of these missional moves in his former archdiocese in Wales. Upon publication and endorsement of the report by the Church of England, the British Methodist Church immediately became a full partner, through the leadership of Martyn Atkins, General Secretary of the British Methodist Church. Bishop Cray noted that “this [movement] was Anglican and Methodist from day one.”

Fresh Expressions is an international movement, with partnerships developing in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and other nations, and across a variety of denominations and theological traditions. Fresh Expressions US is now translating this extraordinary work of God across denominations on American soil.

The phrase “fresh expression” is inspired by the Book of Common Prayer: “The Church of England... professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.”

Fresh Expressions has a particular purpose for a church or community of faith. Here is the working definition from the Fresh Expressions UK website: “A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture, established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. It will come into being through principles of listening, service, contextual mission and making disciples. It will have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.”

Much of the initial motivation for Fresh Expressions in England was stimulated by the need for new church planting. In the United States, we also continue to invest greatly in new church planting. This work arises from a variety of motives, many of them faithful ones. Meanwhile our cultural landscape is clearly shifting, and we should consider a variety of strategies in response. While the need for new church starts is urgent in the United States, there are cultural and ecclesial shifts afoot that move us toward a new language and a bolder vision. In a nation increasingly multi-religious and non-religious, many church traditions recognize the need for planting expressions of Christianity outside the pattern of traditional church practice.

Careful statistical work by the Church of England and the British Methodist Church documents realities mirrored in the United States. In both Great Britain and the United States, the growth of the unchurched and the dechurched (in other words, the “nones” and the “dones”) is rapidly increasing. Some of the “nones” are “openly unchurched” and most of the “dones” fit the pattern of “closed dechurched.”

Before encountering the Fresh Expressions movement, we thought it was post-denominational, meaning that people of faith no longer prefer denominational systems. However, after listening, worshipping, and observing, Fresh Expressions are better described as deeply ecumenical. Traditions don’t lose their distinctiveness. Rather, in practice, the varied expressions found in a particular tradition contribute the riches of who they are to others, and in return receive new and distinct strengths from beyond themselves. This description differs from the common (and important) work of ecumenical movements, which often occur from the thirty-thousand-foot vantage point of councils, dialogues, and agreements. Fresh Expressions, particularly in post-Christian contexts, will necessarily have a deeply ecumenical character, and yet they will be visible and tangible “on the ground” in a particular mission field.

Who knows? Possibly this is sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. In 1989, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote Resident Aliens, perhaps the first popular and sustained engagement with the reality that we are now seeking God’s kingdom in a post-Christian context in the United States. In some parts of the United States, we see very deep political conflict where some Christians desire a return to Christendom. Our brothers and sisters in England are living more fully in this post-Christian world, and we can learn from their creativity and faithfulness. This is our motivation in partnering with what God is doing through the Holy Spirit in this new venture. As you engage with these reflections concerning Fresh Expressions of church, we hope you will think and pray about the implications and potential of this movement for your own mission field. The reflections will lead into the study of scripture and together to your call as a disciple, pioneer, and leader.


 

(This article is excerpted from Kenneth H. Carter Jr. and Audrey Warren’s book Fresh Expressions: A New Kind of Methodist Church for People Not in Church.)

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